More “Juno” Fallout

Comments have been rolling in since I first posted my critique of “Juno,” the soundtrack and the film, on this blog last Tuesday. Yesterday, the article ran in the print edition of the Sun-Times, generating another wave of email.

Because it’s unclear who the writer is if I post emails as comments (yo, Sun-Times Web gurus — are you reading this? Can we fix it??), I’ve opted to run those emails below, with a few of my own comments interspersed in italics.

The critique has also generated some discussion on the blogosphere: here; here; here and here.

It is often said that in rock ‘n’ roll, the ultimate democratic art form, everybody’s a critic. And I’ve never thought that movies should be any different.

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FROM JOHN P. KEATING, JR.:

I thought I was the only one who hated Juno.

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FROM MARK MAXWELL:

I’m sure using the word “hate” three times in one sentence in your column about the film Juno has elicited much response, and perhaps by the time you get to this letter, if you ever get to it, you won’t have much patience for criticism, but I hope you will listen carefully to what I have to say and rethink some of your claims.

My biggest beef with your column is that you seem to insist that there are no kids like Juno in the world. You call yourself “a reporter who regularly talks to actual teens as part of his beat,” but apparently you have never met anyone like Juno. This is unfortunate, because while they may be few and far between, they are out there. I have been a high school English teacher for twenty years, teaching creative writing and other English classes to thousands of teens. In that role, I have not met very many Junos, but I can tell you they do exist. I can think of nearly a dozen kids, off the top of my head, who have inhabited my classroom, who were smart, sarcastic, and wisecracking in much the same way that Juno is.

You claim that the film does not ring true because it was shaped by a twenty-nine-year-old screenwriter, a thirty-year-old director, and a twenty-year-old actress. Unfortunately, teenagers do not have the resources to make films about themselves, but if they could, the teens who would have the skill to craft movies worth seeing would be kids like Junothose rare, visionaries, whose voices rise out of the rubble of human speech and sound true because they are so cleverly sarcastic and wisecracking. As I said, I’ve taught kids like that, many of whom have gone on to contribute to the arts in a significant and sincere way. Of course, no one heard of them when they were teens, but now they are making their mark. You have even covered some of them on your beat.

I’ve had the privilege of working with kids who have gone on to become professional dancers, visual artists, screenwriters, journalists, and musicians. Angel Ledezma and the Kinsella brothers were students of mine, for example. I know you are familiar with their work. Whether you like them or not, you have to admit they are out there making smart music, contributing to the local music scene in ways that challenges the songwriters in their midst. They were the same way when they were seventeen. They were a lot like Juno. Their writingmuch of which I still have stashed in manilla folders in my classroom filing cabinetswould surprise you because it doesn’t sound like the kind of writing you would expect from a teenager. In fact, it probably sounds more like something a thirty-something screenwriter would write. That’s because they, like Juno, were older than their years.

That’s the key to Juno’s success; she is not a normal teenager. After all, how many teenage girls would show up on their boyfriend’s lawn in a recliner, smoking a pipe, to tell him he’s going to be a dad? It is because she is so unusual that she is so authentic. Likewise, Juno’s seemingly conflicted taste in music also rings true precisely because of her passion for musicians who, on the surface, seem to have little in common. I am not trying to say that this is a flawless soundtrackfor me it’s trying a bit too hard to be Garden Statebut your suggestion that “there isn’t a hint of anger and lust for lifein the sort of tween indie-rock that Juno loves” is shortsighted.

I would argue that from a teenage music lover’s perspective, there may not be such a cavernous distance between Iggy Pop and Belle & Sebastian. Again, Tim Kinsella, though he’s no longer a teenager, is a good example I think; he’s an Iggy Pop fan, yet it was Tim who introduced me to Belle & Sebastian. To me, today’s mopey, Emo rockers are yesterday’s punks. I mean, don’t you think if Cat Power were making music in 1979 she would have sounded a lot like Patti Smith? In fact, I would be willing to bet Patti is one of the Cat’s biggest influences. Anyway, who says that the greatest punks never made room for saccharine? Look at the Replacements. Paul Wetserberg’s own band mates used to teasingly call him James Taylor!

As I said the soundtrack is not perfect, and I don’t believe Juno is a perfect movie either. What I’m trying to say is that I feel you’ve relied on faulty logic to attack the film and its soundtrack, and frankly, I’ve come to expect more of you, so I was disappointed when I read your column this morning. I certainly don’t expect you to print a retraction after reading this letter, Jim, but maybe you will revisit your thoughts, and maybe you will eventually reduce your assessment to one use of the word “hate” instead of three. That would be enough for me.

Sincerely,

Mark Maxwell

P. S. By the way, I too have a daughter who loves Hannah Montana and is about to embark upon her teenage years, and I hope she doesn’t make the same mistakes Juno made, but if she, like so many other smart but horny teens before her, does something stupid when the hormones kick in, I will try to treat my daughter the same way Juno’s father treated her, and I hope my daughter will have the courage to face her mistakes the same way Juno did, John Travolta strut and all. I suspect you’d want the same from your daughter.

MY RESPONSE

You were not the only reader to remark on my use of “hated, hated, hated,” Mark. That was a nod to my esteemed colleague, Roger Ebert, who chose “Juno” as his favorite film of 2007; my favorite of his many fine books is, of course, “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie.” I hear Roger’s going to have his say about my critique Friday in his “Answer Man” column. Not surprisingly, I hear he disagrees with me.

Hey, the man is my hero, and one of the few writers truly worthy of Oscar Wilde’s notion of “the critic as artist.” But I still think he’s wrong about this one!

Regarding teens actually listening to Belle & Sebastian or the Moldy Peaches: I don’t buy it for an instant. Their audience is comprised of mid- to late-twentysomethings, and people (much) older. I know: I’ve seen both groups many times, and never seen any Junos in the crowd. And three high school teachers and music fans of my acquaintance concurred that their kids don’t like anything that even remotely sounds like the “Juno” soundtrack.

Yes, I’m willing to grant that “Juno” is a movie, not reality. But the music sucked any way you want to take it.

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FROM MARIE NOVOTNY:

After twice reading your review of “Juno” in today’s Suntimes, I am writing to offer a different point of view.

First, I understand the you were reviewing the music and soundtrack, not the movie, per se, but you do give some personal opinions with which I disagree.

All movies have a story to tell. The plot of Juno gives one side of one person’s decision. If Juno had used birth control, there would be no story. The real point is that even bright, self-empowered children make bad decisions and then have to live with the consequences.

I don’t think the movie was ‘preachy’. It didn’t delve deeply into how Juno made her decision not to have an abortion or why she chose an open, private adoption vs. going through an agency.

In the ‘real world’, I don’t believe that any parent’s initial reaction to Juno’s situation would be as positive as portrayed but this is Juno’s story, not her parents’. They are portrayed as caring, loving, and supportive of her decision and I think most parents would get there, eventually.

I felt the initial portrayal of the young couple’s yearning to have a family was realistic. The plot didn’t go into the story of why they were choosing to adopt but another point the movie did make was that having a baby will not help keep a marriage together, no matter how much you want it to.

As the mother of four adopted children, now adults, and the grandmother of 5, I have said, “Thank you, God.”, many times that there were four young (ages 14-17) birth mothers who chose adoption.

I saw Juno with my 12 year old granddaughter, who thought the music was “cool”, the movie “good”, and the text message short-hand “acurate”. Contrary to me – her old grammy – she knew all the music.

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FROM MARILYN FRIED:

I HATED IT MORE THAN YOU… I HAD TO PAY TO SEE IT. WRITE ON! Marilyn

MY RESPONSE

I only get into concerts for free, Marilyn. Movies are on my own dime most of the time. I did get the soundtrack album for free, though.

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FROM “S”:

I just got done reading your article in today’s Sun-Times and as a fifteen-year-old girl, i have to completely disagree. You seem to have forgotten about all the teenagers who aren’t caught up in rap and hip-hop music and who happen to love the music our parents may have listened to at our age. I saw ‘Juno’ on Friday night and the moment i got home, i got the soundtrack. Not every teen is obsessed with Paris Hilton’s new style or Jay-Z’s new rap album. Simon and Garfunkel, who appears on the album, happens to be a favorite band of mine. I respect your opinion about the soundtrack, but honestly, you claim to be the father of an “almost teen” but who says everyone is exactly like your teenager? No one.

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FROM JEFF M. GALUS:

Your review of Juno could not have been more offbase or poorly argued. Like you, I’ll offer no examples or evidence of any kind to support my theory.

To employ your argument’s structure and thorough lack of contextual evidence: Are we really supposed to believe you saw the same movie we did?

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FROM JOHN REDA:

Jim – It’s a movie, dude! Not a documentary. Talk to some teens and they’ll tell you they liked Juno for the same reason they liked Ferris Beuller–they are characters far cooler, far more confident and self-possessed than most teens. And they’re funny. Having a kid and listening to lots of music doesn’t give you any special insight into young people. Stick to your YOUR opinion, which is often interesting. Plenty of people (high school teachers, for example) have WAY more of a handle on what teens think. Enough to know they can’t speak for them. Or be the arbiters of authenticity.

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FROM DOLORES KOTHEIMER:

I just saw Juno yesterday, so the headline of your article caught my attention. I’m a high school math teacher (Ebert’s–age just can’t afford to retire), so many statements in your commentary rang true. High school kids just aren’t as clever and cheeky as Juno’s dialog allowed her to be. I, too, took issue with her understanding dad and shrewed step mom who never said they wanted to help raise their future grandchild. And I agree that the Jason Bateman character upstages the teenager with his longing for a musical career that seems so impractical.

But you’re a music critic, not a movie critic. (Unfortunately, everyone who goes to the movies thinks giving movie reviews is pretty much second nature–I’m guilty here too. I hated, hated, hated Million Dollar Baby. I felt cheated thinking I was seeing one kind of movie that ended up another. I hated, hated, hated Babel. I thought it set up women and children as victims while men strutted their bravado. But, both were so memorable and thought provoking–though I’d never watch either of them again.

I ramble. I know nothing about music. Nothing. Don’t particularly like it. I listen to Christmas music. There. You know what that says of me. Would just as soon enjoy the silence of my house or car. Ironically, all my sons have been, or still are, musicians. If you’re interested, my son Paul has a website at http://www.handmaderecords.com/mp3

I understand he’s “locally famous” in Urbana.

Anyway, I read your column only to hand on articles to my sons. None of them would consider reading the Sunday paper on Saturday evening.

But to get back to Juno. I think you’re going to get a lot of contrary emails about it. There was a gaggle of teenage girls at the theater yesterday sitting not far from me who were captivated by it. Maybe they admired what they perceived of her daring personality.

I left the theater humming the music and thinking it was catchy in “It’s a Small World After All” kind of way. (Which nobody likes, but I wouldn’t mind collecting its royalties.) But then, I’m rarely aware of soundtracks–just a visual learner, I guess.

Anyway, I’m writing that your musical review of the soundtrack is probably right on target, but I have to agree with Ebert this time about the movie. I liked it despite the fact it was phony. Or maybe because it was.

I often think you columnists would find it hard to imagine all the different kinds of people that your articles touch. I guess I’m just one of them.

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FROM CARL JOHANSSON:

Dear Mr. Derogatis: Thanks for an excellent critique of a bad movie. Until you I thought I was alone in hatred for it. My reasons are identical to yours. One must ask: Of what were the “other” film critics thinking? Could they not see through it?

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FROM JENNIFER GRANDY:

This is why you and I get along so well: we can’t stand crap like “Juno.” Long story short, I hated this movie. I needed an anti-cutesy chaser to cleanse my palate (Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was on AMC, perfect timing).

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FROM EMANUEL VINSON:

I am sixteen years old, my name is Emanuel Vinson. I am a musician and songwriter, contributing to various projects. My favorite albums of last year include In Rainbows, Menomena’s Friend and Foe, American Gangster, & your much maligned The Reminder.

My favorite films of last year are Hot Fuzz, Once and There Will Be Blood.

So, in response to your review on Juno: As a teenager, as a teenager with many teenage friends, as a teenager with many indie teenage friends, as a teenager with indie teenage friends who saw Juno, I must say-

you were totally wrong.

I’ve disagreed with you many times before (The Reminder, your laughable declarations of the greatness of The Ramones on Sound Opinions), but this is one time where I felt compelled to send you a letter- specifically because you felt entitled to spout in your column about how you like, totally talk to teenagers sometimes, and from what you know, they don’t talk like that.

I assure you that my friends and I do. When I say “talk like Juno,” I mean with our own obscure slang terms and vernacular that seem incomprehensible to outsiders. Obviously were you to wander upon a conversation of us talking it would seem nonsensical, with generous helpings of references to Trapped in the Closet, James Brown interviews, and splices of memorable unintentionally funny quotations from Will Smith films (“THE GODDAMN ROBOTS JOHN”).

It may seem silly, it may seem ridiculous, but however it is us. We are not the average teenager, but we exist. And we are the ones who made the soundtrack to Juno the number one iTunes album in America (or did you think that droves mid 30 somethings were the ones rocking “Anyone Else But You” on their iPods?). That is why I do not scoff when Juno says “honest to blog” because if it were a real saying, it probably would have come from a series of other observations about quirks of celebrity/internet culture that combined into a catchall ironic term.

I could list dozens of inside jokes that we have, that far eclipse the ridiculousness of anything Juno says in the first 20 minutes of the film. And many of my friends have seen Juno, and all of us loved it. Not to mention that many of us, including myself, had been listening to The Moldy Peaches since before we even saw the film. And your derision of their infantile lyrics and barely there musicianship is very ironic, considering, again, your love of The Ramones and their stone-stupid riffs and songs like KKK Took My Baby Away (which makes a terrible murderous organization that has ruined an innumerable amount of lives a metaphor for Joey whining about losing his girlfriend) . So if we’re getting up in arms about music taking BIG ISSUES seriously, like teenage suicide, I suggest we all take a look in the mirror. Or at least in our record collection.

I think it is even more ironic how, in your attempt to deride the filmmakers as condescending in their faulty understanding of teenagers, you proved to be far more off the mark than they were. And I’m wondering how you assume that none of them talk to teens, and are so out of touch, when they’re all ten years (at least) younger than you. What would make them so much less likely to understand the teenage psyche than you? Absolutely nothing, as your review has proven.

To comments about the seriousness of abortion & the response of the parents

1: Juno made a personal decision, and the film did not make it seem as if it were all just for poops and giggles. It showed that there were definite problems to deciding to keep the child, but it ended up being good for them. Just because someone doesn’t prefer abortion doesn’t mean they’re ANTI-ABORTION AND THUS ANTI-WOMEN. Please, there’s absolutely no need to take it there. Grasping for straws.

2. The response of the parents was totally consistent with their characterizations. And they were realistic well-rounded characters as a whole. So it is another unnecessary gripe.

Basically:

When it comes to assessing real teenagers, and people in general- you are the phony, not the makers of Juno. You’ve shown a lack of understanding and an abundance of ignorance on the topic of the subtleties and differences of people and the decisions they make. It is a wonderful film, please stick to doing Saul Williams reviews.

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FROM KATHLEEN NEUMAN:

Dear Mr. Derogatis, I found your anti-Juno article on Sunday a bit far fetched, though you made some valid points. I think that perhaps since it was not the typical “teen movie” played by actors well over the teen-age (i.e. breakfast club, Empire Records, etc.), you have been a bit thrown off. I applaud the movie for the very different approach it has taken to coming of age genera. And I also feel, not to demean your character, that being a man a few of your points are a little narrow minded based on your age and inability to reproduce. I appreciate you have a teenage daughter, but being a female teen not too long ago, I think your “anti-abortion = anti-woman” comment is a representation of your generation. I am not saying that I am pro-life, but I can respect a character who is willing to think of someone else’s life beyond her own. I know girls in high school, bright girls, who have done the same. I found that to be a breath of fresh air. Also, if she had decided to go through with the abortion, that would not have left much of a movie. It’s been done.

As far as your rips on the music chosen for the film. Juno is one of those movies where the music plays into every scene and creates the entire feel for the film. The choices may have been simplistic, but I think for teenagers…it worked. It had a Garden State feel, but not the same level of musical talent. Iron and Wine would not have worked with this film, they are too complex in my opinion. And as far as Jason Bateman’s taste in music…of course it is going to be better, he lived through a much better era. Hence why he was sharing his knowledge with Juno in the film. I am just happy to see that Juno wasn’t jamming on what teens listen to these days. I pity the kids who have to grow up and “back in there day” will mean Brittney Spears, Black Eyed Peas, Good Charlotte, and Fall Out Boy. Personally, I would have welcomed more Sonic Youth…but it isn’t realistic for the time. The true hipsters and outcasts who live and breath the underground scene are always looking for something more, something that hasn’t been heard before, and once everyone hears it…they drop it like a bad habit. Not everyone gets a truly eclectic musical education these days…maybe you can pass one on to your daughter, but I would hope that you do not also limit her own choice to listen to something different.

Thanks for listening

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FROM JOE K.:

You sure are smart — no wonder I love you! i hate hate hate when a movie about “Kids” written & created by old folks is hailed by other old folks as really getting the “kids of today.” So your Juno piece really hit home- excellent job shoveling through the BS as usual

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FROM (NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST):

Dear Jim, I loved your column yesterday about Juno. I haven’t seen it, but from everything I’ve read, it’s so glib. I’m an adoptive parent, and I know a lot of adoptive parents and birthparents. The result of unwanted teen pregnancy can give adoptive parents their dream of being parents, but for the teen who places her child with them, it is a heartwrenching decision. In our case, our birthmother received a lot of criticism from co-workers and associates asking how she could “give up” her baby–often, from people who had had several abortions. She was very strong and I admire her so. She was not a cautionary whale, just a girl in a bad place who did a very brave and difficult thing.

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FROM MATT LONG:

I agree with you about the annoying, unrealistic dialogue given to the Juno character. Ellen Page’s ultra-deadpan delivery didn’t help, either. Together they made her into a cartoon. I think this kind of dialogue can work okay on the page, but sounds ridiculous when spoken aloud.

You left out “Ghost World”, the comic and the movie, as an example of realistic-sounding and acting contemporary teenage girls. And it was written by a thirty-something man. Go figure.

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FROM LYNDA ANTMAN:

All I really have to say is “thank you” “thank You” “Thank You” for your insight and courage in your music, movie, morals review of Juno.

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